Can we live in a world without fossil fuels?

Is it possible to fulfill all our global energy needs with renewables only? And which technologies work best to help us transition to a world without fossil fuels? Scientists give answers at COP23.

"A full decarbonization of the electricity system by 2050 is possible for lower system cost than today based on available technology," said Christian Breyer, who heads a team of international researchers at Lappeenranta University of Technology (LUT) in Finland.

Nature and Environment | 06.11.2017

Breyer and his team looked at data from all over the world, such as energy consumption, demographic development and weather. They also analyzed which technologies are expected to be the cheapest in the next three decades. 

"Energy transition is no longer a question of technical feasibility or economic viability, but of political will," Breyer added. Breyer's team and NGO Energy Watch Group (EWG) presented their findings at COP23 in Bonn.

Falling costs give rise to solar power

Due to rapidly falling costs, solar photovoltaic (solar PV) and battery storage are the main drivers of securing the global energy supply. Solar PV's share of total power supply is expected to rise from 37 percent in 2030 to almost 70 percent by 2050, the study said.

Nature and Environment | 01.03.2018

Wind energy would make up 18 percent, hydropower 8 percent and bioenergy 2 percent of the total global energy mix by 2050, according to the scientists' estimates.

Read more: COP23: Writing the Paris accord rule book

The energy mix would of course look slightly different in areas with a lot of wind and fewer hours of sunshine, such as in Europe's and Asia's northern regions. 

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To guarantee access to electricity day and night reliable storage is a must.

According to Breyer's simulation, about 30 percent of overall demand in 2050 will be met by storage output and 95 percent of that, in turn, will be covered by batteries alone.

The study's authors have calculated with a global population of almost 10 billion people by 2050 - that means the world's hunger for power is expected to double as a result.

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Twice as many new jobs

These changes are obviously helping with air quality and overall a more healthy environment, but they also help with jobs. At the moment, there are about 19 million people who are employed in the energy sector - half of those are working for the coal industry.

 Infografik Mehr Jobs durch globale Stromerzeugung mit erneuerbaren Energien ENG

These jobs will be made redundant by the transition to renewables; however, twice as many new jobs would be created as a result, according to estimates. 

Huge strides towards cutting down emissions

At COP23 in Bonn, delegates are trying to come up with ways to reduce carbon emissions to limit global warming well below 2 degrees Celsius and help mitigate climate disasters.

Global energy production - especially coal - contributes to 20 percent of all carbon emissions. If the electricity system were to only be powered by renewables, emissions could drop by 60 percent by 2025. By 2030, they could drop by 80 percent.

Infografik CO2 Emissionen müssen sinken (Sperrfrist: 28.06.2017 19:00:00) ENG

"Such a scenario is indeed realistic, since renewable energy sources are becoming cheaper and cheaper," said climate economist Claudia Kemfert of the German Institute for Economic Research in Berlin (DIW) when the study was released.

Utopia or realistic scenario?

"We've seen in the past that all studies did underestimate the development of renewable energy. That's why it's going so much quicker than anticipated and we are looking ahead to the next three decades, where we can meet the target of 100 percent renewables in our energy mix," she added.

Energy Watch Group head Hans-Josef Fell agrees with that assessment and says the finance sector also plays a huge role in accelerating this dynamic. "Financial institutions now regard investments in coal, nuclear, oil and gas as risky and terminate their commitments," he said.

Infografik Kohleausstieg Europa ENG

Renewable energy sources are regarded as safe alternatives.

"This scenario is essentially the basis if we want to fulfill international responsibilities as laid out by the Paris agreement," said Stefan Gsänger of the World Wind Energy Association.

But he was also quick to point out that this is by no means a market-driven self-seller. "I hope we'll build up enough pressure on political decision makers all over the world," he added.

European Member of Parliament Arne Lietz of the Social Democrats says there is still a huge deficit.

"This scenario shows that we must urgently rethink current politics," he said. "But politics are not there yet." Lietz added that "big lobbyists trying to influence the government to keep investing into fossil fuels and ruin economies" were blocking efforts.

Urine and excrement

Our physiological needs can be used for much more than filling our bladders and our toilets. Researchers are looking into how to transform urine and other human excrement - let's spare the details - into energy. For instance at refugee camps, this could provide lighting while solving sanitation problems. Despite the negative associations, our corporal waste may one day be our best ally.

Algae farms

It's an incipient idea that needs intense further research - but farming microalgae could be a solution to producing biofuel efficiently and sustainably. Large microalgae farms would transform sunlight and carbon dioxide into bio-ethanol. But even with optimal results, energy production would remain very low.

Harnessing gentle breezes

Moya is a lightweight, flexible sheet that can harvest low-grade wind energy in a variety of locations - that's how its inventor, South African Charlotte Slingsby, describes it. This curtain can be installed into existing infrastructure without a need for expensive facilities or land-clearing. And it doesn't harm birds or bats, like large wind turbines can.

Coconut for coal

Wood remains the main energy source in many parts of the world - and this is leading to deforestation. Coconut shells and husks may be a sustainable alternative in countries like Kenya or Cambodia. Compared to traditional wood charcoal, coconut charcoal burns longer, is cheaper and avoids felling trees. It also eases management of coconut waste - a real problem in some regions.

Fish scales and bones

Fish factories create mountains of waste every day - which could produce energy. The high fat content in the tons of fish innards, along with scales and bones not suitable for the food market, can be used to produce biodiesel. Countries such as Honduras, Brazil and Vietnam have been already experimenting with this new energy source for years - but financial issues may hinder success.

Wind turbine in camouflage

The wind tree is a French innovation imitating nature to create energy. Jerome Michaud-Lariviere, the brain behind this concept, was inspired while observing leaves on trees fluttering in the wind. The tree-like structure has 72 mini-turbines instead of leaves, and can produce enough electricity to power 15 streetlights, charge an electric car or even power a small family home.

Bust a power move

Imagine tapping the energy of every step you take - this is the concept behind smart surfaces located under dance floors, football pitches, and metro stations, among other venues around the globe. The energy harvested can power low-voltage lighting or charge electronic devices in the immediate vicinity. So now there's a new excuse to keep your body moving!

Olives into biofuel

This delicious appetizer is also the source of olive oil that is a basic part of cuisine in Mediterranean countries. But once the olive has been pressed for oil, the leftovers can have a further use: biofuel. Production of olive oil creates four times its weight in waste. The Phenolive project turns that waste into electricity and heat, in doing so completing the product lifecycle.

Mustard plant residues

Power outages are still a daily reality in many areas of the developing world. A lack of resources has pushed people to find cost-effective alternatives - and "trash" from crops stands out as a good option. Incinerating the stems and leaves from mustard plants, for instance, can provide electricity to thousands of rural homes. The ash can then be placed back in the fields as fertilizer.

Solar roadways

Sun not only makes shimmering mirages on roads - it also produces energy. The Netherlands already has a 70-meter solar bike path, and France is now following in the same track. The country plans to install 1,000 kilometers of specially designed photovoltaic solar paneling on its roads over the next five years, with the aim of expanding its renewable energy capacity.